Small State Studies: An Introduction to a Broad Research Agenda

by Béatrice Chahine, Robert Fullam, and Jenny Paturyan

“Small states studies” is a collective term, used to denote a relatively new trans-disciplinary research agenda in social sciences. It encompasses political, economic, international, security, demographic and other areas of research focusing on states considered to be “small.” Those states are believed to possess some distinct characteristic and face challenges stemming from the fact of being small.

What makes a state a small state? Some definitions focus on the size of the population, ranging from less than 15 million people (Crowards 2002) to less than 250,000 people (Veenendaal 2017), others focus on the size of the territory (for example 65,000 km2 and under according to Jalan 1982) or the GDP of the country, for instance, $3000 million and under (Jalan 1982) . There are other approaches to defining the small state as well. The image below maps conceptual debate around the definition of the small state.

Small States definition

There are a variety of small states: microstates (less than one million people), independent or autonomous territories, who are under the authority of another state, weak states, failed states, small regional powers. Most of the research on small states focuses on Europe.

It is somewhat ironic that most of the international relations theory has so far largely ignored the small states, despite the fact that small states comprise the majority of the globe. Great powers receive a disproportionate share of attention from the scholars, the media and the general public because they are perceived as having enough power to influence world affairs. But is it really so? If there is strength in numbers, shouldn’t the argument go the other way as well? Small states may be small, but they outnumber the large states by far. In fact, some great powers (such as the United Kingdom, which is an island and former international empire leaving the EU at the moment) can be considered small states.

The idea behind the small state is contrary to the theories of realism, which heavily rely on hegemony as the global order (or chaos). The idea of the small state’s power is intricately tied to international organizations, where the small state’s real strength resides. It is in the framework of international organizations, where small states, in particular, have the most visibility and the opportunity to create relations.

Indeed, small states are known for their creativity with soft power – most of them are known to have small military and defense budgets. Within the framework of global soft power trends, small states have a tradition to set their agendas around the issues they feel most passionate about or around a policy specialization (e.g. defense policy in the EU spearheaded by Sweden; Switzerland’s neutrality principle; or Fiji’s peacekeeping missions).

The current research on small states is Eurocentric and is spearheaded in part by the University of Centre for Small State Studies, European and international university partners (the University of Canterbury, University of Malta, and some US think tanks (e.g. Wilson Center). The Turpanjian Center for Policy Analysis of the American University of Armenia has recently joined this scientific community, aspiring to promote small state studies in and about Armenia. This blog post is the first in the series that will explore various aspects of the small states and relate them to Armenia. We start small (pun intended) but we have a vision of establishing a research hub of regional importance. In the future, we hope to grow our cooperation network, produce academic and policy research on the topic, organize events, and engage in partnerships to advance this important area of inquiry.

One does not need a lengthy argument to convince a reader that Armenia is a small state. In terms of its population, territory, the size of the economy or almost any other less commonly used benchmark, Armenia is clearly a small state. The problems that the country faces in the spheres of economy or security are typical small states’ problems. But Armenia also has an interesting, rare aspect: a large Diaspora spread around the world. Topics for interesting research and practical applications abound. We need interested scholars of all levels to engage. This could be a particularly fruitful path for students looking for inspirational research topics.

All right, we convinced you that small states studies is a topic worth pursuing, but you are not sure where to start. Let us give you a few pointers.

The literature on small states extensively concentrates on governance, discourse, definition issues, diplomacy/policy-making, and on specific individual issues met by individual states. Apart from internationally-renowned think-tanks (Center for Security Studies, International Crisis Group, Council on Foreign Relations) and the Small States Studies Initiative of the University of Iceland several scholars have established themselves in the research, notably Steinsson and Thorhallsson. Their research includes papers, reports, and articles, including one in The National Interest. You can find a list of literature to explore below.

We hope this post is a useful source of information for those interested in small state studies.

Literature to explore:

Maass, Mathias, “The elusive definition of the small state” in International Politics, 46:1, January 2009, pp.65-83.  (amongst other writings)

Steinsson and Thorhallsson, numerous works including:

“The Small State Survival Guide to Foreign Policy Success”, The National Interest (online), 28 September 2017. URL:


”Small State Foreign Policy” in Thies, Cameron G. (ed), Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Foreign Policy Analysis, Oxford University Press, 2018, 1848p.

Neumann, Iver B., and Gstöhl, Sieglinde; “Lilliputians in Gulliver’s World? Small States in International Relations”; Centre for Small State Studies, University of Iceland Working Paper 1-2004; May 2004; 28p.

Dreyer, John R. and Jesse, Neal G; Small States in the International System: At Peace and at War; Lexington Books; 2016; 214p.

Panke, Diana, “Small States in the European Union: Structural disadvantages in EU policy-making and counter-strategies”, Journal of European Public Policy, Issue 17(6-6), September 2010, pp. 799-817.

The University of Malta published the first volume of a new journal, Small States and Territories, in May 2018

and for further reading, including examples of active small states on certain questions:

Dür, Andreas and Mateo-Gonzalez, Gemma, “Bargaining Power and Negotiation Tactics: The Negotiations on the EU’s Financial Perspective, 2007-2013”, UCD Dublin European Institute Working Paper 08-2, May 2008.

Kurecic, Petar and Kokotovic, Filip, “Revisiting the definition of small state through the use of elation and quantitative criteria”, conference paper, February 2017.

Sutton, Paul (2011) The Concept of Small States in the International Political Economy, The Round Table, 100:413, 141-153. URL:

Crowards, Tom (2002) Defining the category of ‘small’ states. Journal of International Development, 14: 143-179

Jalan, B. (1982) “Classification of economies by size” in Jalan, B. (ed.) Problems and Policies in Small Economies. London: Croom Helm, 39-48.

Veenendaal, Wouter. Politics and Democracy in Microstates. 1st ed., Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017

For an informal case study by a professional:

Fatiaki, Mosese, “Case Study: Fiji’s contribution to World Peace”, published as an article on LinkedIn (online), 26 August 2018. (Note: this is not an academic scholarship but remains interesting from a professional’s perspective).


One Response to “Small State Studies: An Introduction to a Broad Research Agenda”
  1. bdlchahine says:

    Reblogged this on The Teapot and the Postbox and commented:
    I’ve been quieter than usual here but the following text is part of the reason.
    Research is extremely important for the world and individuals (either States or persons). When the research involves small States and not the great powers, it becomes even more critical.

    Please check out what we are working on at the moment with the Turpanjian Center for Policy Analysis in Armenia. We would like to thank Mr. Fullam, who has become a dear friend, and Dr. Paturyan, whom I consider a mentor in the analysis

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